The story of Saint Josephine Bakhita is a marvelous testament to the power of God's love, the power of forgiveness, and the power of love to overcome evil. She was kidnapped by slave traders when she was a small child, beaten and scarred, treated as a near-worthless object—but she persevered until she found a new way to live. This short segment from my book explains how forgiveness fits in:
It was her fifth owner, the Italian consul at Karthoum, who first showed her kindness and ultimately brought her to Europe, where she discovered Christ. While taking care of the young daughter of a family there, she was introduced to the Canossan Sisters with whom she eventually found a home as a religious sister. Fifty years of quiet consecrated life allowed her to witness to others the deep abiding peace that faith and forgiveness can bring. Seeing God’s hand even in the difficult path of her life, she noted, “If I was to meet those slave raiders that abducted me and those who tortured me, I'd kneel down to them to kiss their hands, because, if it had not been for them, I would not have become a Christian and religious woman.”
At her beatification, Pope John Paul II praised her as “Our Universal Sister,” pointing out that she offers us “a message of reconciliation and evangelic forgiveness in a world so much divided and hurt by hatred and violence.” Note that Bakhita didn’t say that what the slave traders and her owners did to her was right—it most certainly was not. But she recognized that through her wounds she found salvation, which she could not ignore.
Cardinal Weurl reminds us of the importance of her story as it relates to the suffering of women even today:
At Bakhita’s canonization, Blessed John Paul II called the first saint from Sudan “a shining advocate of genuine emancipation” for women victimized in today’s world. “The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance, but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights,” the pope said.
Some have promoted Bakhita as a possible patron saint for the victims of human trafficking, the modern-day form of slavery that includes forced labor and many women and children of both sexes being forced into prostitution. The feast day of Saint Josephine Bakhita, February 8, has been designated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops as a day of prayer to raise awareness of, and to help end, the scourge of human trafficking.
The severity of human trafficking cannot be underestimated. It is estimated that there are as many as 27 million trafficking victims at any given time worldwide. A recent article in the Catholic News Service notes that experts estimate that five million of these trafficked and enslaved people are children. The evil is unfolding not only in foreign countries. A 2013 report from the U.S. State Department confirms that the “United States is a source, transit, and destination country for men, women, and children – both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals – subjected to forced labor, debt bondage, involuntary servitude, and sex trafficking.”
That number—27 million—defies comprehension, but try to imagine the horror of each of those isolated souls. We must beg Saint Bakhita's intercession to bring light, emancipation, and joy to these captives. But there's more to the suffering than even the statistics reveal:
There are many forms of slavery, including those that do not have visible chains or leave outward marks. We suffer from them as long as we cannot name them, claim our own dignity which comes from being created in the image and likeness of God, and renounce them from holding us captive. The liberation that forgiveness can offer is as stark as the sundering of iron fetters and the opening of a prison door—it is for the one who suffers to choose freedom and wholeness of heart, despite her surroundings. The graces of God are available to all even in the darkest hours and each cross bears within it the seeds of Easter for those who cling to Christ.
Please pray for for all who are captive—from those enduring physical constraints to those trapped in a cell of resentment over past injuries. Consider how freedom may be lacking even in the lives of those around you, and share Bakhita's story. Even when all the slaves have been freed, it remains for us to show them how to rise above the past, and how to realise all the good that God has in store for those who forgive.